Raptors outlast Pelicans as Valanciunas makes presence felt in return

We’ll skip during the last sport Jonas Valanciunas performed at Scotiabank Area as a result of, properly, he got here off the bench towards the Milwaukee Bucks and didn’t do a lot.

However the second-last sport? The night time he put up 26 factors and eight rebounds and two assists on Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers in (am I studying this proper?) 18 minutes?

Yeah, that deserves a point out.

And you may preserve going from there. The large Lithuanian was within the midst of a profession yr when final wore a Raptors uniform. He got here of the bench behind Serge Ibaka and was placing up numbers that will have required some dialog about him being a candidate for the NBA’s Sixth Man Award have been it not for damage after which a commerce.

There are many causes to get a bit of nostalgic about Valanciunas enjoying his first sport in Toronto since December of 2018. Amongst them: he’s one of many nicest, most genial athletes to ever put on the uniform. Not fairly Jose Calderon good – the Spanish level guard is the nicest man on the planet, so robust competitors — however definitely within the Anthony Parker class.

Earlier than the sport, he discovered time to have a couple of phrases with safety folks, Raptors workers, former teammates and even some reporters. It was like he by no means left.

Valanciunas won’t have grow to be the franchise saviour some have been hoping for when he was chosen fifth in 2011 by then Raptors president Bryan Colangelo, however his effort was at all times evident, the size he went to enhance his sport apparent and his good nature by no means wavered, and followers beloved him for it.

It was legitimately unhappy when Raptors announcer Herbie Kuhn referred to as Valanciunas’ title in pre-game introductions and there have been no cheers to greet it. The place would have been roaring within the earlier than occasions.

However sentiment or nostalgia apart, Valanciunas was and stays a tremendously efficient participant.

He by no means performed for the Raptors once more after spraining his ankle towards the Golden State Warriors a bit of after he blew up Embiid. The Raptors have been 23-7 at that time and clearly a group that was going to contend for a title. However Valanciunas was out till the commerce deadline and have become the piece – together with Delon Wright and CJ Miles – that introduced Marc Gasol to the Raptors.

You may’t argue with a hoop or the position Gasol’s defensive and passing acumen performed in getting it, however Valanciunas was averaging 24.5 factors, 13.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per/36 with a TS% of .640 when he was dealt. Simply loopy productiveness in 20 minutes a sport.

Predictably Valanciunas made his presence felt towards his previous group as he completed with 20 factors and 17 rebounds in 34 minutes in what was a aggressive, robust sport from begin to end.

Motivation apart, the Raptors have largely not bothered with even having a conventional centre on their roster since parting methods with Valanciunas after which Ibaka and Gasol [through free agency] in 2020], choosing a lineup that options size nearly all over the place aside from when Fred VanVleet is enjoying level guard.

It’s working, kind of. The Raptors had sufficient to outlast the Pelicans 105-101, extending their profitable streak to a season-best six video games and bettering their report to 20-17 whereas the Pelicans, floundering with franchise participant Zion Williamson possible out for the yr with a foot downside, fell to 14-26.

They wanted the smallest man on the roster — VanVleet — to return up big once more, nonetheless. A pair of deep triples on consecutive possessions by the molten Raptors level guard put the Raptors up three with 90 seconds to play after it seemed like Toronto was at risk of letting the sport slip away from them. A tip-in by Chris Boucher helped as properly, and that the Pelicans couldn’t knock down a pair of open threes after Valanciunas drew double groups within the publish didn’t damage.

VanVleet even snagged a key offensive rebound within the waning seconds simply to make sure. He adopted his first profession triple-double on Friday with 32 factors, 4 rebounds and 4 assists, his sixth 30-point outing in his final eight begins. The Raptors are actually 15-3 in video games when VanVleet scores 30 or extra factors.

Pascal Siakam added 29 factors whereas snagging 10 rebounds and 7 assists, as he’s mounting an all-star push of his personal.

VanVleet’s play has made the Raptors go of late, it’s inarguable.

However enjoying small – at centre anyway – comes with a value. The Raptors are considerably weak towards the league’s greater large males. Former Raptors centre Jakob Poeltl – who was traded in the summertime of 2018 as a part of the deal that introduced Kawhi Leonard to Toronto – put up 19 and 12 in 23 minutes when he was in Toronto final week. On Friday Hassan Whiteside’s like was fairly modest for the Jazz, however the quantity of consideration and energy the Raptors needed to put into ensuring he didn’t punish them on the rim was one of many causes the Jazz have been capable of go 17-of-38 from deep, even whereas lacking virtually all of their key rotation gamers.

The Raptors performed each Birch and Boucher down the stretch to counter Valanciunas’ bulk. However he drew fouls and punished the Raptors for switching, corresponding to his lay-up over Siakam with 4 minutes left that tied the rating 93-93

“Yeah, it’s a priority,” stated Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I believe that is the factor the place you bought a extremely large, robust scoring centre within the sport that you just don’t see all that usually. Paradoxically, we’re seeing – Whiteside is certainly one of them, Jonas, [Joel] Embiid, you recognize the blokes. We’re not likely beginning a centre so we’ve obtained to take that problem, we’ve gotta get the rotations found out, how we’re gonna do this, put some dimension in there. Your concern is JV capturing it higher as all people is aware of. He’s definitely obtained that right-handed hook within the low publish and my essential considerations are at all times his offensive rebounding.”

Which implies, the Raptors defensive rebounding: Toronto is final within the NBA in defensive rebound per centage. The Pelicans, it might be value noting, are first.

And Valanciunas is a extra expert participant than he was three years in the past. Most notably he got here into the sport capturing 43 per cent from three this season on an affordable quantity. He’s not the space-eater he was prior to now although he’s nonetheless a handful within the paint as he confirmed when he turned onerous proper from the mid-post early within the fourth quarter and practically put Chris Boucher within the basket.

The Raptors principally dealt with by attempting to be fast and environment friendly when their assist. When Gary Trent Jr. needed to set out with a sore ankle the Raptors began with Khem Birch, who drew Valanciunas. The Raptors set the tone early with VanVleet coming onerous on a double on Valanciunas’ first contact. Within the second quarter – when Boucher was giving up practically 80 kilos to the massive Lithuanian – the Raptors despatched dimension to assist as quickly because the Pelicans centre put the ball on the ground, with first Treasured Achiuwa after which Scottie Barnes trigger deflections as Valanciunas tried to move out of the double.

It’s one technique to method it. And on the different finish, Valanciunas at occasions was misplaced defensively because the Raptors unfold the ground and left him and not using a true large man or perhaps a vital roll menace to remain dwelling on.

Valanciunas has made strides as a defender for the reason that days since then Raptors head coach Dwane Casey determined he couldn’t preserve Valanciunas on the ground late video games when lineups sometimes get smaller and quicker.

He confirmed it when the Raptors remoted the red-hot Siakam on him on the wing and Valanciunas stored his previous teammate in entrance of him on the drive and obtained again to the rim to dam Treasured Achiuwa on the rim when Siakam dished off.

“He nonetheless performs – his dimension is conducive to defending the paint and he does a extremely good job,” stated Nurse. “You don’t get an entire lot of layups on him; you don’t get an entire lot of lobs on him. He virtually forces you into the mid-range sport along with his type. He’s most likely gonna be on the market, he’s kinda certainly one of their essential guys who finishes video games now.”

You may’t assist however marvel the place Valanciunas may end the season. He’s obtained two years as $30 million left on his eminently cheap deal. He’s 29 years previous. The Pelicans are a group in no-man’s land however will almost definitely be sellers on the commerce deadline.

It could make sense anyway.

Sooner or later, the Raptors will possible want a real large in the event that they’re going to make any actual noise within the East.

VanVleet can’t do all of it without end.

They might do loads worse than goal Valanciunas. Think about the ovation then.

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